1 2 3 – a play about abandonment & ballroom dancing

Save the Last Dance for Me

” 1 2 3: A Play About Abandonment and Ballroom Dancing” is a world premier play written by Lila Rose Kaplan, appearing in the San Francisco Playhouse Sandbox Series.  It is about three sisters that we first meet as teenagers.  Their parents are political radicals that have been arrested for killing a police officer, though that act was an unintended consequence of their civil disobedience.

Along with their parents, the sisters had long been on the lam, changing residences and names much in the same manner as the 1988 movie “Running on Empty”.  After the parents’ arrest, the girls are placed with three different foster families in close proximity in Massachusetts.  As the girls to decide what names to use this time, one proposal is that they simply be 1, 2, and 3 in order of age, hence the title.

Kaplan clearly delineates the sisters, yet makes them multidimensional.   Agatha is the current name taken by 1, the eldest.   She is played by Jessica Bates, whose tall, thin physique corresponds well with the authoritarian figure she is in loco parentis.  Though austere and somewhat distant, Agatha is sacrificing, and she babysits to pay for the middle sister’s dance lessons.  Bates’ portrayal leaves room for a hidden warmth, as she demonstrably tries to keep the sisters together.

T is 2, the middle child.  Unlike her sisters, she is bitter about the itinerant life they’ve led and openly describes the parents as terrorists.  Tristan Cunningham is T, and she embodies T’s hostility to the point that you want to jump onto the stage and shake her into reason.  Though she is very close to her sisters, virtually any comment sent in her direction that doesn’t conform to what she wants to hear is met with a sharp riposte.  T has issues.

Lynn, or 3, was blessed with both a cute and a happy gene.  She has taken her name as a fractured abbreviation of Ellen DiGeneris, and her choice foretells her future in the entertainment business.  Devin Shacket plays her role frenetically and with charm.  Always positive, she is also intrusive, camcording every event she can in the girls’ lives.

To keep the family bond strong through their foster separation, Agatha institutes breakfasts at a diner owned by the mother of the final character of the play.  Jeremy Kahn as Luke completes the outstanding, highly energetic acting ensemble.  Luke is a vision of easy going and friendly.  A lover of words, yet he doesn’t seem to have academic aspirations.  However, he is a talented ballroom dancer, highly successful in competitions.

Adolescents grow to adults, and events drive people together and apart.  Thus Agatha becomes a professor whose life intertwines with the parents; T becomes Luke’s partner and gives herself totally over to dance; and Lynn becomes a reality TV  producer.  And life continues, and life ends.

Director Lauren English marshals the limited resources available for a short run in a small house deftly.  The sticks and rags set and props are modestly reconfigured to be the diner, a basement, and more.  The full width of the stage comes into play, with the appropriate use of a spotlighted front fringe, while the center stage is darkened.  The overall impact is enhanced by a significant sound track and dancing, with fine choreography by Bates for Cunningham and Kahn’s elegant execution.  Finally, the actors are superb as they transition from adolescence to maturity, with Shacket undergoing a dramatic change, well affected.

“1 2 3…..” is playing at SF Playhouse Sandbox at 533 Sutter, San Francisco, until August 30.